Child Caring

Why Can't My Preschooler Amuse Himself?

Dear Barbara,

I have a hard time getting my almost 4 year old son to play on his own. He used to play with his trains for hours until he was about 3, but in recent months, I can't get him to entertain himself anymore. He just wants to play with his daddy and me. We can get him to play games, Legos, Play-Doh etc. but only if we do it with him. Apparently he does great playing on his own at preschool but if I tell him to play on his own he just mopes around or walks in circles. He always says he's tired but refuses to nap.

His baby brother was born when he was 3 and we have another baby on the way in a few months. I know that this is probably all about him wanting our attention. I'm a stay-at-home mom and I do my best to give him attention and play with him during his brother's nap every day, but I can't give him constant attention and I do need some downtime. How can I get him to entertain himself sometimes?

From: Irene, Chelmsford, MA

Continue Reading Below

Dear Irene,

I'm sure you're right, that this is about wanting your attention, not about a lack of attention span, an inability to amuse himself or lack of stick-to-it-iveness. Most likely, he's reached a level of cognition that enables him to recognize that he isn't the only one who needs your attention, and of course, that's only going to get exaggerated with another baby's arrival. That said, it's also fine to set limits around the time you can give him. For instance:

* Establish a set time each day, in addition to bedtime, when he knows he will have your undivided attention. Call it "Mommy and me time," and make it sacrosanct so that even if the baby isn't napping, there is someone else to tend to him. Underline its importance by making a show of turning off your phone, putting away the laptop, etc., and telling him, "I don't want anything to interrupt our time together." Let him choose the activity (or give him choices you can tolerate) so that he feels in charge. Then relax and enjoy. This doesn't have to be a lot of time; 10 or 15 minutes is forever to a preschooler. But do sprinkle in a couple of, "It's so nice to have this time together, just you and me, isn't it?"

* When he begs for you to play with him, give him choices: Can he "help" you with what you're doing? Set him up with a parallel safe activity so you are doing something "together" in the same room. Can he wait until Mommy & Me time? Can you help set him up in an activity and peek in on him?

Hopefully, the combination of helping him to feel he's in control and giving him a guaranteed time when he has your undivided attention will enable him to be more secure and ease up on his demands for your time. Most of all, when he does ask for you, maintain your patience and be firm about his choices. If he ends up looking like he's at loose ends, learn to tolerate that. Eventually, he will figure out how to amuse himself. Frankly, we do our children a dis-service when we continually give in to their needs for instant gratification. He will learn how to amuse himself when you give yourself permission to let him.